Guangzhou (Canton) Cuisine

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Guangzhou (Canton) Cuisine

Cantonese food has attracted a world following for its quality and variety. As to the former, a Chinese proverb says that one should "marry in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, dine in Guangzhou, and die in Liuzhou," since these cities have, respectively, the prettiest girls, best views, best food, and best coffin woods. As to the variety, Chinese say that the Cantonese "eat everything with legs except a table, and everything with wings except an airplane."

Cantonese food is, broadly speaking, the food of Cantonese speakers. Cantonese is a separate language (though not dialect; there are, rather, several dialects of Cantonese) spoken throughout most of Guangdong province and well into Guangxi, and also by migrants who have radiated throughout the entire world. More narrowly, Cantonese food is the food that reaches its highest level of development in Guangzhou (the capital city of Guangdong) and in late-twentieth-century Hong Kong. The north parts of Guangdong are inhabited by Hakka and Teochiu people who speak other languages within the Chinese family; they have their own distinctive cuisines. Much of Guangxi, especially in the west and south, is inhabited by Zhuang and other Thai-speaking minority peoples, who also have their own cuisines. This leaves Cantonese food and language to some fifty million or more people.

This area is roughly coterminous with the part of China in which rice agriculture has always been most intensive. Lowland paddies produce up to three crops a year, and have since imperial times. Yields in the early twentieth century reached 2500 kg/ha. Today, with new varieties and intensive fertilizing, yields reach four or five times that figure. Nowhere else in China does rice so dominate the scene. Therefore, rice traditionally supplied some 90 percent of calories in the typical diet, and was the only true staple food. Other starchy foodsnotably sweet potatoes and maize, since their seventeenth-century introduction from the New Worldwere mere famine backups.

In traditional times, a tightly integrated farming system developed, which combined this intensive rice agriculture with aquaculture, duck and pig rearing, and fruit and vegetable gardening. Every crop was fitted tightly into its place. For instance, ducks were taken by boat from field to field; they would be turned into a field when the crops were too old to be tempting food. Instead, they would eat the snails and insects, and leave fertilizer behind. Several species of fish were raised, each eating a different set of natural pond life-forms. Pigs and chickens were raised on leftovers and on items inedible to humans. Frogs and other wildlife were caught and eaten. What escaped the system and washed out to sea was cycled through shellfish and finfish. Nothing was lost and nothing was wasted. This system, along with related systems in southern Japan and central Java, was the most intensive and productive agriculture in the world before the rise of green revolution crops in the mid-twentieth century.

In coastal and delta areas, the most important animal protein is fish. Thousands of species of marine life occur and are utilized. Recently, overfishing has made aquaculture relatively more important. Away from the coast, pork is overwhelmingly the major meat, with poultry reserved for festive fare and other meats quite rare. Dogs, cats, and game animals are eaten, but not often. Soybean products, including bean curd, soy sauce, and fermented black beans (tau si ), probably supplied more protein in the past than meat did. The most abundant vegetables are Chinese cabbages (many varieties) and the onion family (five species, in order of importance: onions, green onions, garlic, garlic chives, Chinese leeks). Also important are lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes (both white and sweet), taro, bamboo shoots, and dozens more. Condiments include vinegar, strong mustard (from Brassica juncea), white pepper (not black), chili sauces, and, above all, soy sauce and its variants. Food is almost unthinkable without soy sauce. Rice by itself is not a meal, but rice with soy sauce is, and for the poor in earlier times it was, often the only meal of the day. Distinctively Cantonese, and a real marker of the cuisine, are tau si, soybeans boiled, salted, and fermented such that they turn black and acquire a strong meaty flavor.

Freshness, tenderness, and delicate subtle flavor are ideals. Relatively young animals and vegetables are preferred to old ones. Fresh items are always preferred. Not only are fish kept alive until wanted; they are preferred if kept alive in clean ocean water (rather than tanks), and they are sometimes taken at a dead run to the kitchen, so as not to lose a moment outside the water. Poultry was traditionally fed specially on high-quality foods. (Pigs, however, were fed on anything available.) The quality of the ingredients was once the most important dimension for evaluating food and restaurant quality. The goal of cooking was to preserve the essence of the fresh food item by cooking it quickly in a simple yet perfectly calculated way. Split-second timing was characteristic; a change in the sound of boiling or frying signified doneness, and the item was instantly whisked off the flame. Items are often briefly boiled before being stir-fried, so they would be tender in spite of quick frying.

Traditional food preparation includes salting and drying fish and vegetables. Small shrimps, salted and self-digested, produce a paste that is liked by some individuals. Pork sausages of various kinds are prepared; the most popular, laap cheung, traditionally includes rose-flavored alcohol. Unique to Cantonese cuisine is pork, roasted and marinated while hanging from forks in a tandoori-like clay oven. This dish is now usually baked in a more modern style, but retains the name ch'a siu, "fork-roasted."

The diet was based on rice eaten with a vast variety of vegetables and animals. The basic division in the diet was between faan, cooked rice, and sung, a word unique to Cantonese and referring to anything cooked to eat with or on the rice. Rice is regarded as the perfect foodindeed, a true "cultural superfood"; people feel they have not really eaten unless they have eaten it, and the standard Cantonese greeting around mealtime is "have you eaten rice yet?" (One always answers "yes," because if one says "no" the greeter is more or less duty bound to offer food. This custom harks back to the old days, when poverty was widespread and eating was by no means a regular thing.) Foods not eaten with rice are primarily mere snacks, sometimes called siu sik, "small eats." These include fruit, sweets, and the elaborate snacks called tim sam, "dot-the-hearts," which have evolved into the "dim sum" of global Chinese restaurants. The only substantial fare that does not involve rice are the noodle dishes, and even the noodles are sometimes made of ricethough wheat and wheat-and-egg noodles are commoner. Noodles are usually boiled in soup, or boiled and then stir-fried with vegetables and meat (the famous ch'ao mien or "chow mein").

The usual breakfast is tea with fried pastries and/or juk (congee), a small amount of rice boiled in a lot of water, producing a thin mush. It is eaten with peanuts, salt vegetables, soy sauce, or similar strong-flavored foods mixed in. Special occasions call for a long, lingering breakfast over tea and tim sam. This ritual, known as yamch'a "drinking tea," has recently migrated to brunch or even lunch hour, and become a weekend fixture.

The main meal of the day can be at noon, midafternoon, or evening. It is based on a large amount of cooked rice. With this, typically, one finds a steamed dish and a stir-fried dish, and perhaps another steamed dish. Steamed fish and stir-fried vegetables would be a typical combination. It is common to prepare a four-dish meal in one pot by putting small saucers of raw foods on top of the rice, and simmering all in a closed pot; the other dishes steam while the rice boils. Almost invariably, there is soup, usually at the end of the meal. Water is known to be unsafe to drink unboiled; boiled water by itself is neither tasty nor nourishing. Tea is expensive. Soup, in contrast, is known to extract the nutrient values of foods, and can be made from tough vegetables and other economical items. It is thus the preferred way to take liquid.

The other meal (lunch or casual supper) will normally be noodles in soup, or a similar substantial but unassuming dish.

Banquets involve large amounts of meat and fish, and little or no rice. Whole fish and other impressive seafoods are usually the most expensive and prestigious items. Pork and duck are normally present. Special ritual foods abound, and include whole roast pigs and stews of great pieces of meat. Men are the cooks for these large sacrificial dishes. In general, women are the cooks in China, but men are the restaurant chefs, specialists, and preparers of large ritual meals.

Desserts are unimportant, simple fruit being generally preferred, but some sweets are prepared. Notable are small cream tarts called taan t'a, "egg tarts," probably English (via Hong Kong) but identical also to Portuguese pastel de nata and thus perhaps borrowed through Macao. Cookies and fruit are traditional gift items.

An important aspect of Cantonese food is eating for medicinal value. Dozens of foods are eaten largely for perceived healthy qualities: snake for warming during winter, watercress for cooling, wild ducks or pork liver for strength and energy (their high available iron content explains this), certain herbs for cleaning the system, andof coursechicken soup for almost everything. In Chinese medicine, foods are heating, cooling, or neutral. Heating foodshigh-calorie, fatty, reddish, or spicymake the body hotter, or give rashes and sores. Cooling foodsvery low-calorie, watery, sour, or cool-coloredmake the body cooler, and in excess lead to loss of energy and strength. Neutral foods are balanced; cooked rice, noodles, and white fish are examples.

Chinese wolfthorn fruits (kau kei ji ) and leaves (kau kei ch'oi ) are the highest in vitamins and minerals of any common food, and are thus used as nutrition supplements. In Chinese medicine, all foods have significance for health. Food grades into medicine. Many foods, such as the wolfthorn, are eaten purely for their medicinal value. White fungus, dried scallops, and other items are on the borderline. Even medicinal herbs such as ginseng could be called foods. Food is the first recourse when an individual feels less than well. After childbirth, women eat foods perceived as strengthening and warming; modern analysis shows these foods to be high in iron, calcium, and other minerals, in vitamins, and/or in easily digestible protein. It is well known that such foods restore health and benefit milk production.

There are regional variants of Cantonese cuisineoften coterminous with dialects of the Cantonese language. The T'ai Shan area, for instance, is home to the Toisanese dialect, and to such dishes as tsap seui "miscellaneous leftovers." This became the infamous "chop suey" of third-string Chinese restaurants in the western world, but it began life as a good if humble dish among the specialist vegetable farmers of the area. At the end of the day, they would stir-fry the small shoots, thinnings, and unsold vegetablesup to ten species in a dish!

Changes in recent decades have been dramatic. Affluence has eliminated the famine and want that drove many within living memory to live on sweet potato vines, outer leaves of cabbages, and tiny shellfish gathered at low tide. A greater variety of food is available. Standardization has meant better and safer processed foods. Meat is relatively cheaper, and consequently more used. On the other hand, mass production in agriculture, and volume feeding in huge restaurants and chains, has spelled near-doom for the concern with quality ingredients. Much more oil, sugar, and salt is used now than forty years ago. Monosodium glutamate (isolated in Japan in the early twentieth century) spread into Cantonese cooking via overseas restaurants, and is now almost universal. Hamburgers, fried chicken, and other American fast foods abound in south China, and have inspired adaptations and hybrid descendents.

Cantonese cooking has spread throughout the world, and is the main ancestor of the simplified "Chinese cooking" found in small Chinese restaurants everywhere. Humbler variants on this theme include the "takeouts" of England, the "chop suey joints" of North America, and the "chifas" (from Putonghua chi fan "eat rice"[?]) of Peru. Much more sophisticated and elaborate Cantonese restaurants exist overseas, especially in major American and Australian cities; those in Vancouver, San Francisco, Sydney, and elsewhere now rival Hong Kong and Guangzhou in quality. These diaspora restaurants have affected the homeland; the fortune cookie, invented in California around the end of the nineteenth century, was only beginning to reach Hong Kong in the 1960s, but is now found worldwide.

In the future, as world population rises, the intensive, high-yielding, efficient food production and processing system of southeast China will become a more and more attractive model.

See also Japan ; Korea ; Noodle in Asia ; Rice ; Southeast Asia.


Anderson, E. N. The Food of China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Buck, John Lossing. Land Utilization in China: A Study of 16,786 Farms in 168 Localities, and 38,256 Farm Families in Twenty-two Provinces in China, 19291933. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937.

Ruddle, Kenneth, and Gongfu Zhong. Integrated Agriculture-Aquaculture in South China: The Dike-Pond System of the Zhujiang Delta. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Simoons, Frederick J. Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 1991.

E. N. Anderson